As Catholics, we spend our spiritually formative years learning that there are plenty of aspects of the life of Christ to be considered and prayed about. But over the past year or so, another mystery that involves both mankind and the divine has emerged, not out of the Holy Land but rather from Hollywood: whether the new Bible-themed cinematic epic “Noah” would be a faith-respecting epic or heretical hatemongering.
At the center, the question was whether the film would please the conservative faithful of the Christian right, or be derided as blasphemy by those who are displeased with anything less than a literal interpretation of the story of the Great Flood.
We finally have answers emerging this weekend, as Paramount Pictures released its $125 million production into theaters worldwide and awaits its own judgment at the box office. An enormous amount is at stake, as its production cost makes this the most expensive Bible-based film in studio history, and the success or failure of “Noah” will determine whether a new wave of Bible-based films gets sent into production.
The irony lies in that the very same Christian right audience that loudly wonders why Hollywood studios don’t produce more Bible-based films are the very people that can prevent them from ever getting made if they opt to boycott the film. The center of the controversy lies in the fact that its co-writer and director, Darren Aronofsky, openly admits he’s an atheist, and by extension many faithful are concerned that he doesn’t treat the story with proper respect and may even be discreetly trying to undermine the faith of billions around the world.
These fearful faithful question why an atheist would opt to make a blockbuster film of a sacred text that he dismisses as allegorical or flat-out false. But in recently speaking to reporters about that issue, Aronofsky explained that the Noah story had enormous relevance for him as a child, growing up amid a sad divorce between parents who sought to discourage his creativity at every turn.
The auteur recalls that he entered a poetry contest in 8th grade, with a poem about the dove that finds land after the flood. When he won the contest, it marked the first time he ever felt validated for being creative, and set him on his life’s path to become a movie director, always vowing that he would someday turn Noah’s story into a movie.
And so here he stands, 32 years later, having assembled a cast with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly reteaming as husband and wife more than a decade after they won Oscars as scientist John Nash and his wife in “A Beautiful Mind.” Backing him are the enormous financial resources of one of the planet’s top studios, ensuring the best special effects are available to convey the spectacle of the ark — which Aronofsky built to match the Bible’s exact specifications.
But those who are protesting the film are upset mostly with the writing in the script, which had to take some creative liberties just to ensure the four chapters of Genesis could support a two-hour film. But what many don’t realize is that for the first time in his career, Aronofsky relinquished his right to make the “final cut” of a movie to the studio, allowing an openly devout Christian executive named Rob Moore have final oversight on the film and how it was released. That executive also hired Old Testament scholar Ari Handel to co-write the film with Aronofsky, further ensuring that the movie did not veer into blasphemous terrain.
Having seen the movie on Wednesday night on the Paramount lot, allow me to debunk some of the nastiest smears being waged against Aronofsky’s final product. Rumors have swirled that the movie suggests that mankind’s environmental abuses take precedence over broad-based sin as the reason God sets His wrath upon the world with the flood.
In actuality, the movie opens with the story of Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden, clearly spelling out from the film’s second sentence — in spoken narration and in writing on the screen — that mankind’s sin was the reason. Sin is largely described or seen in forms of unkindness and then violence, as people run and loot in terror while hopelessly trying to get ahead of the flood.
It also clearly shows that mankind’s arrogance and mockery of God’s will was a huge and punishable disrespect towards the Lord. And best of all, it depicts the creation story of Genesis with riveting style, bringing it to life again in a way that should move and impress audiences worldwide.
The aspect that I will concede as strange is a group of stone-encased giant creatures called “The Watchers,” who are explained to be fallen angels whom God trapped upon the earth for trying to intervene on Adam’s behalf and seek God’s mercy for mankind at the time of the original sin. These creatures take a couple scenes to get used to, but in an epic battle staving off evil humans as Noah prepares to launch the ark, the Watchers come to stunning life and beg for the Creator’s mercy.
“Noah” also catches flak for not using the word “God.” Throughout the movie every major character references the “Creator” and looks to the heavens, with Noah in particular dropping to his knees at several points while talking to the “Creator.” Yet the Nicene Creed says that God was the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. And in the context of the times — during the first days of mankind striding the earth — it would seem only natural for people to consider God mostly by the title of Creator.
Noah himself engages in both silent and loud prayers with the Creator throughout the film, and the Creator times some of the greatest miracles and brightest moments to occur at moments when Noah’s actions merited reward. Thus, the Creator is a loving force as well, making the movie pro-God rather than a God-avoiding travesty.
At one point, Noah believes God is asking him to prevent the propagation of the human race — including among his own family. This belief leads to a storyline resembling the sacrifice Abraham was asked to make in killing his son, but ends with a pro-life message.
The movie also recognizes that it takes a male and a female to propagate and restore the planet. It is easy to see this as a defense of traditional marriage — or at least as backing the Bible’s view of proper propagation.
What really seems to be happening here is that a small yet hardcore faction wants to see the Bible told their way or in no way at all. Yet there were four different Gospels that add up to the overall portrait of Christ Himself.
“Noah” shows a man standing against the evil of the men, bowing repeatedly before his Creator and risking everything to do the Creator’s will. It takes a pro-life stand as well as a pro-God one, and uses stunning effects to bring the story to life in a way that could well make modern-day cynics believe the epic mission was entirely possible to pull off.
If not every word is precisely on point with Scripture, then does it really matter when so much is done well? Is it really worth sacrificing a foothold in Hollywood for ever-better Bible films to be made?
“Noah” is a film that deserves to be seen, and God wiling through future Bible films, improved upon.